Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

What Kind of God Would Send People to Hell?

by Sarah Swafford

I cannot even count the number of times that I have heard the question, "What kind of God would send people to hell?" Usually this question is simply answered with something to this affect, "God does not send people to hell. They choose to go to hell, by not choosing to serve Christ." This answer is usually good enough if you are conversing with an average person, but not good enough if you are a Calvinist and the other person is an Arminian. Those who do not properly understand Calvinism think that from a Calvinistic perspective God makes people go to hell, by predestining them to go to hell. My goal here is not to prove or disprove Calvinism or Arminianism. Even if God did not cause people to go to hell, but instead just allowed them to go to hell, doesn't He still sound like a pretty mean God? In defense of Calvinism, I will try to answer the commonly asked question, "What kind of God would send people to go to hell?" Instead of trying to explain the huge answer to this huge question in my own words, I will attempt to give Edwards's view. Jonathan Edwards has been found to be one of the best presenters and explainers of Calvinism, and has much to say about this issue. I have found Edwards's answer to be: A sovereign, just, merciful, loving, and giving God, who is greatly worthy of glory, would send people to go to hell.

First and most importantly, Edwards emphasizes that a sovereign God would send people to hell. The dictionary defines sovereign as: "6. having supreme rank, power, or authority. 8. greatest in degree; utmost or extreme. 9. being above all others in character, importance, excellence, etc." (Webster's 1826). The sovereignty of God is an extremely important fundamental principle of Edwards's theology. Edwards' theology is Calvinistic; yet in today's society, the statement, "I am a Calvinist," tends to have negative connotations. To avoid this, the avid believer in Calvinistic and Edwardian principles may instead say, "I believe in the sovereignty of God."

God would not be much of a god if He was not sovereign. Any god that is worthy of any worship or dedication should be in control of things. I might worship a god who was in control of only a few things like the weather, my grades, the emotions of men, etc. However, I know that I would not want to give my life to a god who wasn't in control of everything, who did not know what was going to happen next, who could not direct things to go exactly the way that he had perfectly planned, or who did not always have my best interest in mind. In the first chapter of J.I. Packer's book, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, He explains that all Christian sects generally agree on the sovereignty of God. However, disagreements arise on the question of the degree of God's sovereignty.

Jonathan Edwards firmly holds to the belief that God is completely and utterly sovereign. Edwards's definition of sovereignty is, "The sovereignty of God is his absolute, independent right of disposing of all creatures according to his own pleasure" (Sermon IV 850). Very simply, the belief that God is sovereign is the belief that God is truly in control of all things. He can decide whatever He wants to decide about everything. He has a perfect plan, and He works through the hearts and the lives of all men to carefully carry out this plan perfectly throughout all time.

God has the right to do with us as He pleases. He can send whomever he wants, whenever he wants, to wherever he wants -- including hell. When men are sinful, God has the right to determine whether He is going to redeem that individual or not. God is in debt to none. Just because He gives to some whom He is not in debt to because He finds pleasure in this, does not mean that He is now in debt to give to others (Discourse IV 678). Edwards states that God's sovereignty, "implies that God can either bestow salvation on any of the children of men, or refuse it, without any prejudice to the glory of any of his attributes, except where he has been pleased to declare, that he will or will not bestow it" (Sermon IV 850).

In declaring that He will or will not bestow salvation on some, He has bound himself to His own promises. The only thing that God is bound by is His moral character, which holds Him firmly to His promises. One aspect of his moral character, which He is bound by, is His holiness. God is holy and cannot come into contact with sin. If one sins, and does not turn back to God, God is bound to send this person to hell. He is bound to send them to hell not only because He is unable to have contact with them, but also because He said (His Word is a promise) in Scripture that the unrighteous shall perish (Romans 6:23) (Sermon IV 850-852).

God is morally bound by his promises and His holiness to send sinners to hell. Yet if he is really in control of all things, should not He be able to control whether we sin or not? Yes He should and He can. Yet Edwards tells us that since God is sovereign, He is under no obligation to keep men from sinning; but he may leave them in their sin. Edwards says, "It is unreasonable to suppose, that God should be obliged, if he makes a reasonable creature capable of knowing his will, and receiving a law from him, and being subject to his moral government, at the same time to make it impossible for him to sin, or break his law" (Discourse IV 670). So God did not make it impossible to sin; therefore, Adam did sin. Yet God has a perfect plan in all things. If He had not withheld His divine nature from Adam so that he fell, then Adam would never have realized he could not do things on his own which resulted in him turning back to God. As a result of Adam's sin, all of mankind from that day onward was born with the tendency to sin, and man's sinfulness justly deserves punishment.

The dictionary definition of sin is: "1. transgression of divine law 2. any act regarded as a transgression, esp. a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle 3. any reprehensible action, behavior, etc.; serious fault or offense"(Webster's 1784). The first and greatest commandment, which would definitely be considered a divine law is, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind " (Matthew 22:37). One is rejecting Christ by not loving him and giving one's life over to Him. Edwards would probably say that rejecting Christ is the worst sin of all because he believes that the relevance or horribleness of the sin is relevant to the object or person it is done against. John Piper reiterates this principle, "The essential thing is that degrees of blameworthiness come …from how high the dignity is that you offend" (Piper 127). The more blessed the thing that is sinned against is, the greater the sin (Discourse IV 669).

No one or nothing can get more blessed than Jesus Christ. Edwards explains in detail in his sermon on "The Excellency of Christ" that Christ excels us in every direction. Not only is Christ wonderful, but the blessings that He gives and the way that He gives them are superb as well. When we reject these blessings, we are rejecting Him. God sent his only Son to die for our sins, so that we might have the opportunity to have eternal life and communion with Him. God wants to save us from horrible destruction, and overwhelm us with blessings. Yet men reject Christ and seek their own means of happiness (677).

Edwards explains that it is just for God to send people to hell, for this is the punishment with which the law condemns them for seeking their own means of happiness and rejecting Christ. Every sin deserves a just punishment. The justness of a punishment is judged by how appropriately it fits the crime that was committed. Therefore, every sin or crime deserves a punishment in proportion to the sin. The greater the sin, the greater the punishment should be (669). If rejecting Christ is the worst sin, then it definitely should deserve death. Edwards states, "Our obligation to love, honour, and obey any being, is in proportion to his loveliness, honorableness, and authority" (669). God is infinitely excellent, beautiful, great, majestic, glorious, and honorable. Also, God is infinitely worthy to be obeyed as our authority. Therefore Edward infers, "So then sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinite heinous, and so deserving infinite punishment" (675). Their infinite punishment is death and hell. Rejecting Christ just once would be horrible enough to condemn anyone to death forever, but men reject Christ day in and day out creating mountains of sins to punished (675).

Therefore, if Christ does not redeem a person, their punishment would be in accordance to your treatment of Him. The love that is expressed by Christ converting a sinner is of immeasurable greatness. Why should God be obligated to express a love so great for one who has never shown the least amount of love for Him at all. One who cares nothing about His glory or His suffering (672). Edwards says it more clearly than I ever could, "Is God bound to set his love on them that have no love to him; but hate him with perfect hatred? (Men Naturally are God's Enemies 140).

Even though we treat God as an enemy, He overwhelms us with gifts--gifts of love, mercy, and a taste for Him. God is in debt to no one; He has not obligations to give His gift of mercy to anyone. If He was obligated to give the gift of mercy, then it would not really be a gift. His mercy is a free gift that He has the freedom to bestow on whomever he chooses (Discourse IV 678). Romans 9:18 tells us, "He has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." Edwards explains this verse,

There is no reason why one should be upset to think that God did not choose to give them the free gift of mercy. No one deserves it by any means. Edwards says that the root problem here is, `that men have low thoughts of God, and high thoughts of themselves; and therefore it is that they look upon God as having so little right, and they so much" (Discourse IV 679). As support of this principle, Edwards quotes Matthew 20:15, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?"

The greatness and love of God is seen in His mercy displayed for those who do not deserve His mercy in any way. Those whom have received the gift of salvation, were in the same state as those who treated God as their enemy. They had wicked hearts and wicked lives. It would have been perfectly just for God to let them go to hell, "but he has had mercy upon you; he hath made his glorious grace appear in your everlasting salvation. You had no love to God; but yet he has exercised unspeakable love to you" (Discourse IV 679). We rejected Christ, and all that He had for us; and then in return, He redeemed sinners at the price of His own suffering and death. Scripture tells us that there is no greater love than this than a man should give up his life for another (John 15:13). What great news for us!

We should be overwhelmed with gratefulness to God for His benevolence of love and mercy, yet we as sinners are so lost and blind in our sinfulness, that we cannot recognize Christ's goodness on our own. If we do not recognize God's greatness, then we will never turn toward Him or desire to accept Him as our Savior. Romans 3: 10 and 11 support this statement, "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is not one who understands, no one who seeks God." Edwards explains, "Hence we learn how absolutely we are dependent on God in this great matter of the eternal salvation of our souls."(Sermon IV 853). We are dependent upon God giving us, what Edwards calls in his "Treatise Concerning Religious Affections", a taste for Him. Everyone sees the same wonderful God, but God, in His love and mercy, helps some to understand and interpret who and what they have seen more accurately and clearly. Edwards calls this ability, to see Christ as He is, having a taste for God. God is the cause of an individual turning toward Christ, because one would not turn to Christ unless God gave them this taste for Him. J. I. Packer in his book, A Quest for Godliness, discusses this principle of total inability. He says total inability is, "the belief… that fallen human beings are totally unable to repent, believe, or do anything spiritually good without renewing grace" (Packer, A Quest, 293)

At this point, the Arminian would not be very happy. They would probably raise the question, "If God is the cause of all things, then where is our responsibility? How can God punish us for doing things of which He was in control? Well, my paper is not directly dealing with this issue, so I will just give a quick summary of what Edwards would say on this issue. Above I said, "One would not turn to Christ unless they were given a taste for Him by God". Let me explain. One will not turn to Christ because they are not morally able to turn to Christ, meaning that they have no desire, therefore they won't. They are, however, physically able to turn to Christ at any time. They just do not want to.

So now the Arminian would say, "If they do not want Christ because Christ did not make them want Him, then that is not their fault either." Here I will just simply state how Edwards's responds to this problem. He responds by saying,

This is very confusing, but sense it is not the topic of my paper, I will just let Edwards speak for himself here.

Back to my above premise that God causes everything, Edwards explains how God is the cause of our having a taste for Him. He tells about the,

God causes us to see Him and understand Him clearer so that we will just naturally see how wonderful He is and then reach out toward Him in faith. Faith is also a gift from God. Edwards defines faith as what is reaching out to grasp God. If God does not give this gift to you then you do not reach out; and if you do not reach out, then God does not give you the gift of salvation (God Glorified in Man's Dependence). God is always the cause of all things.

Because of God's great benevolent character and Him manifesting this benevolence to us, we then love Him. God loves us because of who He is. There is nothing that we can do or be to make Him love us (A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue). Edward tells of God's great love, "God's love to a particular elect person, discovered by his conversion, is a great manifestation of God's moral perfection and glory to him" (A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections 277). I John 4:19 states, "We love him, because he first loved us." The glory and beauty of God's nature is seen in this gift of love and the gift of a taste for Him that God bestows upon his children. Edwards describes further how God is the cause of all things, "It is unreasonable to think otherwise, than that the first foundation of a true love to God, is that whereby he is in himself lovely, or worthy to be loved, or the supreme loveliness of his nature" (275).

The establishing of God being one who is lovely, worthy to be loved, and of supreme loveliness, leads us back to the question that is asked over and over again. If God is loving, why does he send so many people to hell? The question here more specifically is, "If God is loving and sovereign, why does He not give everyone a taste for Him so that they would then seek after Him?" There are several answers to this, which all come from the presupposition that God cannot give everyone a taste for Him, because then they would accept Him, and then no one would go to hell. Some people must go to hell. "How many?", and "Why?", you ask. In response, I paraphrase my professor, "Exactly the number of people that will be in hell, will be the number of people that must go to Hell. God's plan is perfect in every way. He knows the exact number of people necessary to send to hell to maximize His glory." All these people must go to hell for several reasons. These reasons all reduce down to the principle that God must maximize His glory.

The main reason that God must send some people to hell is because God is glorified in showing all of His attributes. This seems kind of self-centered to our small mortal minds, and it is. God is self-centered, but not in a negative way. To take care of us perfectly, he must take care of Himself. He must be the best that He can be so that He will be worthy of glory. Edwards explains why showing all of His attributes is necessary for Him to be the best that He can be. Edwards tells us, "If all of God's attributes are not manifested, the glory of none of them is manifested as it is; for the divine attributes reflect glory on one another." Edwards goes on to give examples of the different attributes that need to be properly manifested. For example He says, "The glory of God's mercy does not appear as it is, unless it is manifested as a just mercy, or as a mercy consistent with justice" (Sermon IV 853). The attributes of God that would not be manifested properly except by people suffering in hell are the wrath of God, the justice of God, and the extent of the love and mercy of God.

This whole idea of people suffering in hell, sounds kind of depressing. Yet we, the children of God, should not be depressed by this idea. Instead we should rejoice. We should rejoice because God is glorified because His wrath against sinfulness is clearly shown. Edwards explains further,

Also, God does not give those in hell a taste for Him, because He does not love those who are in hell the way that he loves His children. He cares about them in a general sense in that, "He is not willing that any should perish" (II Peter 3:9). Edwards tells us that, "God has no love to them [those in hell], nor pity for them; but that they are the objects of God's eternal hatred" (The End of the Wicked 209). Edwards explains to us in his "Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue" that the good of a particular being may be given up for the sake of the highest good of being in general. God letting certain individuals go to hell may seem bad now in our short, blurred perspectives; but in the end, God is glorified, and men are blessed in the justice of each individual's sufferings.

God's justice to those in misery in hell will be perfectly just and righteous for the heinous sins that they have committed. Edwards says, "The glory of God will their esteem be of greater consequence, than the welfare of thousands and millions of souls. Particularly, They will rejoice in seeing the justice of God glorified in the sufferings of the damned. The misery of the damned, dreadful as it is, is but what justice requires" (The end of the Wicked 209).

Another benefit of the display of God's great justice is that when such strict justice is enforced, then the love and mercy of God shines forth even stronger. Edwards states,

Edwards also shows us in his sermon "Christ Exalted" that evil is brought in to this world so that Christ's glory can be seen in triumphing over it. God will show how much He is above his enemies by executing his vengeance upon ungodly men. His power and majesty will be displayed gloriously in the destruction of all men who have not recognized His glory and accepted Him as the exalted Christ that He is.

My sovereign, just, merciful, loving, giving God is greatly glorified in sending people to hell. Most importantly, God meets His chief end by sending people to hell. While the Chief end of man is seen in Romans 9:17, "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth," and in the Westminster Catechism as "to glorify God and enjoy Him Forever", God's chief end is very similar to this. John Piper explains the chief end of God very well,

If God's chief end, glorifying Himself, is met by sending people to hell, then He must send people to hell. This does not show that He is mean or that He is self-centered. This just adds one more attribute to the long list that I have above. As Piper pointed out above, God is a passionate God. He takes care of Himself and His name, for the betterment of man.

Now I directly turn this paper to you the reader. Do you have a passion for God? You have been warned of what will happen to you, if you do not turn to Christ. He is seeking you in that He has made it the duty of all godly men to be concerned about your salvation. You now have to decide if you will accept Christ as your Savior and give Him the glory that He deserves before it is too late, or you could condemn yourself to hell. No one will have pity on you when you are suffering miserably in hell, because you have received adequate warning (The End of the Wicked 211).


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Last updated: 25 May 1998